California is relaxing measures to combat the spread of the coronavirus, cases of which surged to record heights in the many weeks since the Thanksgiving holiday.
Effective immediately, the state is lifting a regional stay-at-home order put in place in November and then tightened at the start of December, leaving it to California’s 58 counties to self-report to state health officials the status of the pandemic in their regions. The state is reverting to its previous color-coded “tiered” system of pandemic measures, in which counties are allowed to loosen public restrictions based on the number of new positive cases and hospital bed availability, among other public health metrics.
In a briefing, Gov. Gavin Newsom said the state’s positivity rate is down to 8 percent and hospitalizations caused by the virus are down 20 percent over the last two weeks, adding, “We’re anticipating more declines and that’s why we’re lifting the stay-at-home order.”
“Today we can lay claim to starting to see some real light as it relates to case numbers,” the governor said. “We’re faring better than more than half of the states in the nation.”
The four-week projection for the state shows that available beds in hospital intensive care units will maintain availability of above 15 percent.
While nearly every county California will now be in the “purple” tier, the most restrictive, without the stay-at-home mandate, all such counties can resume things like outdoor dining and salon services, including the reopening of hair and nail salons and barbershops. Such services had been closed given the close proximity and “mixing” they create between people, the central source of coronavirus spread.
“We’ll be moving quickly, we hope, through tiers,” Newsom said.
“California is slowly starting to emerge from the most dangerous surge of this pandemic yet, which is the light at the end of the tunnel we’ve been hoping for,” Dr. Mark Ghaly, secretary of California Health and Human Services, said in a separate statement.
He added that for the last seven weeks, hospitals and their workers have been “stretched to their limits” but the state overall managed to avoid overwhelming the health system “to the degree we had feared.”
“Together, we changed our activities knowing our short-term sacrifices would lead to longer-term gains,” Dr. Tomás Aragón, CDPH director and state public health officer, said. “COVID-19 is still here and still deadly, so our work is not over, but it’s important to recognize our collective actions saved lives and we are turning a critical corner.”
Yet, the CDPH admitted in a statement that “cases remain high across most of the state.” It also noted that a mandate put in place Jan. 15 to limit elective procedures and transfers between hospitals, in order to reduce strain on hospitals, will remain in effect.
Across the state, new positive cases of the virus have dropped over the last 10 days, but remain high. On Jan. 24, the state recorded 24,111 new cases, bringing its total number to more than three million, with more than 36,700 related deaths. On Jan. 15, the state recorded just over 39,000 new cases.
Los Angeles County remains one of the state’s central hot spots of the virus. It has hovered around 10,000 new cases of the virus a day for weeks, recording just yesterday another 8,200 cases, with more than one million to date, and 98 related deaths, with more than 15,000 to date. The region has about 6,700 people in hospital due to the virus and, according to a tally by the Los Angeles Times, more than 5,000 people have died from the virus in the last three weeks alone.
Even without the state mandate in place, counties can choose to maintain stricter measures, like prohibiting outdoor dining, which Los Angeles imposed about two weeks before the state mandate came down in December. While retail has stayed open with capacity restrictions throughout most of the pandemic, it remains unclear whether the county will allow such restaurants and salons to reopen more fully. But local businesses are eager to expand operations, if at all possible.
An association representing beauty professionals late last week filed a lawsuit against California and its governor Gavin Newsom over the pandemic restrictions, joining a restaurant association doing the same. Despite millions of cases of the virus and tens of thousands of deaths caused by it in California alone, the associations claim that the restrictions on their industries have not been met with sufficient data and science to justify them.
Asked about the lawsuits, Newsom said in the briefing that the state “will ultimately win these lawsuits,” regardless of what level of the court system they may reach.
“We feel like we’re on firm footing,” he said, “based on science, data and common sense.”